State of the Sox 2014, Part 3: Closing Time

Koji Uehara had a near-mythic season as closer in 2013 when
Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan both succumbed to season-
ending injures (David J. Phillip/AP photo)

Jan-Christian Sorensen
Contributing Writer

This is the third of a six-part series focusing on the 2014 Red Sox Pitching (starters, relievers, closers) and Offence (infield, outfield, catchers/bench).

The 2013 Red Sox definitively proved that it’s in every team’s best interest to have a comprehensive insurance policy covering the back end of the bullpen.

When Boston broke spring-training camp early last year, it had a pair of established closers to its credit: Andrew Bailey, who was acquired from Oakland in 2011 for Josh Reddick and two minor leaguers, as well as former Pirates hurler Joel Hanrahan, who came to Boston alongside Brock Holt in exchange for reliever Mark Melancon and a handful of prospects. 

Bailey, who had battled injuries and inconsistency since coming to Boston, was initially penciled in as a middle reliever in favor of Hanrahan, who went 5-2 with a 2.72 ERA while recording 36 saves in almost 60 innings of work for the Pirates in 2012.

Almost immediately, the insurance policy paid off: When Hanrahan was placed on the Disabled List in mid-April with a hamstring strain, Bailey got the ball and recorded five saves in his absence. Hanrahan briefly returned in late April but was only able to throw 2.2 innings in three more games before being diagnosed with a damaged flexor tendon in his right elbow and undergoing Tommy John surgery, missing the rest of the season.

Bailey then stepped into the closer’s role outright, but ended up being shelved for the remainder of the season in July when an MRI showed a torn capsule and damaged labrum in his throwing shoulder. 

In came yet another insurance policy in the form of Koji Uehara, who pitched for 10 years in Japan before coming to the Majors with Baltimore in 2009 and was initially signed as the setup man for the Red Sox before both closers were taken off the board.

Red Sox Nation knows the rest: Uehara finished the 2013 season with near-mythic status, going 4-1 with a 1.09 ERA in 74.1 innings while saving 21 games and leading the Red Sox to their third World Series title in a decade. He was even more dominant when it mattered the most, going 1-1 in the postseason with a 0.66 ERA in 13.2 IP, striking out 16 and walking none and earning the nod as ALCS MVP. In Game Five of the World Series, he earned his seventh save of the playoffs, tying the postseason record with Brad Lidge (PHI, 2008), Troy Percival (ANA, 2002), Robb Nen (SF, 2002) and John Wetteland (NYY, 1996).

In 2013, Uehara set a new MLB standard for WHIP (0.57) among hurlers with 50 or more innings pitched. He also boasted the lowest ERA in all of baseball and tied Kansas City’s Greg Holland and Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel for fewest earned runs allowed, with nine. Uehara also tied Yankee Mariano Rivera for least amount of walks allowed, with nine, while striking out an AL-second-best 101 batters and holding opposing batters to a .130 average.

At one point, Uehara retired 37 consecutive batters before allowing a triple to Danny Valencia on Sept. 17. One batter later, Matt Wieters scored pinch runner Alexi Casilla from third to mark the first run Uehara had allowed in 30.1 innings.

While Uehara will again be the stopper for the Sox in 2014, his advanced age and innings count — Uehara, who will turn 39 shortly after opening day, set a career-high with 74.1 last season — will no doubt be on the mind of manager John Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves.

Edward Mujica
Enter the 2014 insurance policy: 29-year-old righthander Edward Mujica, who signed a two-year, $9.5-million deal with Boston in the offseason. Mujica, who was 2-1 with a 2.78 ERA, 46 strikeouts and 37 saves with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013 but didn’t pitch against the Red Sox in the World Series because of fatigue, will no doubt start the season as a bridge between Junichi Tazawa and Uehara, but can easily be called upon as a closer should Uehara falter or suffer an injury.

In 2013, Mujica led the league in fewest walks allowed, only giving out five free passes in 64.2 innings of work, and was second in all of baseball in strikeout-to-walk ratio (9.20) behind only Uehara's 11.22.

On Sunday, it was also announced that the Red Sox had signed former closer Francisco Cordero to a minor league contract and invited the 38-year-old righty to spring training. Cordero (47-53, 3.38 ERA lifetime) struggled in 2012 and didn’t pitch at all in ’13, but recorded 117 saves while in Texas from 2000-’06 and another 150 with the Reds from 2008-’11.

While it may be the case that Cordero’s best days are behind him, the defending World Series champs are again showing that — much like 2013 — it pays to have a few irons in the fire when it comes to the closer’s role.

Read the first article in the State of the Sox 2014 series, on starting pitching, by clicking here, and the second, on the bullpen, by clicking here.

Keep the faith. Drink the Dirty Water. Connect with me on Twitter: @jan_doh